Prince’s second album starts with one of my favorite drum fills: a flam on the four.1 And with that, Prince is off and running, opening with a perfect 1-2 punch. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” are both much better than anything on For You, confident and catchy and perfectly constructed. “I Wanna Be” grooves along at a perfectly slinky 115 bpm, and contains one of those lines you just know he was very, very happy to have written: “I wanna be the only one you come for.” Even the extended fadeout works here, because it builds and moves just enough to keep things interesting, dishing out some new ear candy every four or eight bars. “Why You Wanna” also has a perfect pop song arrangement, but this time adds some loud and piercing guitars—the lead at the end is a Prince classic, with plenty of “listen to these chops” moves that never drown out a strong melody line.
The next two songs on Side One (Yes, I listened on vinyl! Now get off my lawn!) find our hero falling victim to the same Soggy Middle Syndrome that hurts For You. Well-crafted, but not all that interesting, especially compared to those opening songs, both have titles centered on the word “Dance,” and feel kind of phoned in. After starting with another dull ballad, Side Two offers “Bambi,” which has a guitar solo that always makes me happy; unfortunately, the rest of the song has not aged well.2 But once again Prince knows how to end a record: the original version of “I Feel For You” feels less frantic than Chaka Khan’s, with another great keyboard riff and a super catchy chorus. It’s also got one of those classic Prince narrators, someone who knows what he wants physically (“I wouldn’t lie to you baby, it’s mainly a physical thing”) but is never quite ready to take the plunge emotionally (the best he can manage is, “I think I love you”). Prince ends with “It’s Gonna Be Lonely,” the best ballad on either of his first two albums. The last two minutes builds and releases tension over and over, two minutes of stop-start magic. Once again he finishes an album staring straight into the camera, letting us know just who’s in control.
This is a much more engaging listen For You, with more intense highs and boring bits that are, well, at least a little less boring. In fact, I think the covers of the two albums illustrate what I see as the biggest difference metaphorically, if we want to go there.3 On the front of For You, Prince’s face is blurry, almost seeming to disappear into the background, but on Prince we see him in clear, sharp focus. The whole album sounds more in focus, and if I had listened to it when it first came out, I’d be very, very curious to see where he went next.
1 Even if you don’t know flams by name, you have heard them many times. Both sticks hit at almost the same time—most commonly the snare, but you can do this on any drum, or even split between two drums. Having one stick hit just before the other creates a different, almost more 3-D kind of sound. I tell students to imagine they’re playing a video game, and trying to get the two sticks to hit as close together as they can, without actually hitting together. Bottom line: it’s harder to do than it sounds, and oh so satisfying when it hits at just the right spot.
2 “Bambi, can’t you understand/Bambi, it’s better with a man” is clever enough, but the song sure would have been better with out “Bambi, I know what you need/Bambi, maybe you need to bleed.” It is interesting to think that in a few records he’ll have a narrator ready and willing to be someone’s girlfriend, instead of insisting on being her boyfriend.
3 And why wouldn’t we? If you’ve read this far, and you’re even checking out the footnotes, you’re up for getting all grad school with this project.